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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Better - Not More - Crime Reporting

London, ON Courthouse
As Canadians are once again riveted by a murder trial in London, Ontario, audiences are being swamped with a level of detail about the murder of an eight-year old girl two years ago.

The accused are a local couple who kidnapped, raped and killed Tori Stafford. It's very gruesome and - for Canada - quite atypical, although there have been previous cases of equal sordidness. At the same time, the violent crime rate continues to fall in this country, as it is in the United States.

Local media are all over this - not surprisingly. Columnists are raised the high dudgeon bar to new heights, while newscasts warn listeners and viewers that the content in the reporting "may be disturbing to some."

This is another example of news pornography with the media playing their accustomed role of titillating truth-tellers while spreading moral panic about people who kill little girls.

While this is a story that must be reported, the frenzy of some journalists is adding to the coarsening of our media culture. It seems to have been ever thus.

So I was pleased when I got a letter (yes, an actual posted letter. With stamps!) from a reporter based in Hong Kong. He is looking for a teaching job at my university and he proposed that, because of his legal training and background in the UK, he would like to teach a course in Crime Reporting.

Which got me thinking about how little news organizations or journalism schools spend on teaching something to which media increasingly devote much ink and airtime.

The problem with most crime reporting, I mused to my Hong Kong correspondent, is that it is usually so uncritical and without much context. Journalists are overly dependent on police and legal sources and happy to be limited in that way. Skepticism - usually a journalistic virtue - seems entirely missing when it comes to the police beat. Crime reporting is more about stenography than journalism.

The story in London, Ontario is a case in point: who are the accused killers (the female partner has already confessed and is testifying against her former lover)? How did they end up this way? What are their histories? What is it about rural Ontario that produces these people? Instead we are getting much lurid details all admitted into evidence, and so worth reporting.  

The verdict seems to be a foregone conclusion. But the lack of serious journalism in this instance is deeply troubling. It may be time to build a course on Crime Journalism at the university level.


  1. Actually Mr D, I would think this would be a time for you to compare us to the Brits. Their crime reporting quite nonchalantly includes the crime of bribing the police for all kinds of information. And in that the Brit journalists do that, they get juicier crime stories. What I wonder is can one teach that in a university course?

  2. "What is it about rural Ontario that produces these people?"

    I have no idea what you mean. Both Rafferty and McClintic are from Woodstock. An urban area.
    If this column is, as it reads, a shill for your J-School, then maybe the administration should be looking into hiring an instructor who can tell urban from rural.

    1. Interesting that the Woodstock website says the city calls itself The Dairy Capital of Canada and is "Home of the Springbank Snow Countess: a Holstein cow that set a world record lifetime butterfat production of 9,062 pounds". Guess she moved to the city after being milked out in the rural regions around it.

  3. Is this some sort of city slicker version of a joke?

  4. And what's up with Dorken?
    Lost his tongue after convicting people who live in rural areas as they breeding ground for the types who would murder little girls with hammers.
    Have a good semester in this time of austerity, professor.